This came up last Monday when procrastinitrix asked it, and I thought it might be a fun question for us to all toss around. And another little break in the Jab Harry Met Sejal coverage, which is no doubt irritating for those of you who haven’t seen it/don’t want to see it.
This is one of those situations when I get SO FRUSTRATED with how everyone is going “WOW! Did you see this?” While I am going “Yes, when I was 5 years old…..Do you, like, never watch anything before 1980?”, and I just CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!!!! So I am going to force you all to learn the basics of American musical/dance history on film, so you can better appreciate how that interacts with modern Indian film, and the occasional very very rare modern American musical.
Yesterday I did a brief post on Carrie Fisher and mentioned that I feel a much deeper connection to her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Which is true. And now Debbie is gone, and my farewell post will be a lot more in depth and personal. But not terribly sad, because she had a long and wonderful life.
Warning: Despite what it says below, this is NOT A GOOD MOVIE. The dialogue is terrible, and so is Salman’s accent. But it is so so pretty! My love is purely superficial and based on appearances, do not follow my example!
I loooooove Jaan-E-Mann. Me, and no one else. Maybe my sister, maybe my parents (although that could be familial indulgence), and that’s it. It was such a huge flop when it came out, it actually ended careers. Poor Shirish Kundar.
I actually saw it in theaters opening weekend, it and Don. They opened the same weekend, and I was much more excited for Don! Farhan Akhtar collaborating with Shahrukh! Super hot Arjun Rampal! A remake of a classic film that actually came with the blessing of the original filmmakers! Turns out, everyone was more excited for Don, Jaan-E-Mann was a massive flop and Don was a massive hit. Thus beginning the tradition of Salman and Shahrukh going head to head, and Shahrukh winning by a thousand percent. Just something to think about when laying your bets for who will end up winning Eid next year.
Anyway, I did like Don. Especially the Aeneid scene. So, if you haven’t happened to have read the Aeneid, it opens with Aeneas fleeing Troy as it burns. He is struggling to get through the burning streets, carrying his young son in front of him and his elderly father on his back, with his wife’s hand in his. At some point, he lets go and loses her. So it’s this very literal metaphor, with the past generation being held behind him and the future in his arms, he flees from danger (to eventually found Rome. Which was the point of the Aeneid, according to my classics teacher in college, that Romans wanted to be a cool and connected to Troy somehow so they wrote this very elaborate justification for it).
Anyhoo, there’s this one moment in Don when Arjun Rampal, a cripple, has to laboriously walk over a treacherous walkway between two buildings with his son carried on his back in order to save both their lives. And something about how it is filmed just captures that Aeneid-esque quality of desperately traveling on not just for yourself, but because of those you carry with you.
So I liked that! And SRK was hot and the songs were catchy, but the ending was kind of a let-down. And on the whole, it just felt a little too glitzy and “oo, look at me! Aren’t I cool?” to be fully heartfelt. And then the next day I went to see Jaan-E-Mann and it Blew. My. Mind.
I distinctly remember standing on the corner afterwards waiting for the bus thinking “why didn’t anyone warn me! I’m not going to be the same after that!” Of course, now I know why, it was because no one else in the world had the same reaction I did! It’s not like reviews say at the bottom “by the way, everyone else will find this film tedious and fantastical, but you one person in Chicago (you know who you are) will be so emotionally overcome after viewing that you may need to bring a buddy with you to help you find your way home.”
I don’t even wish it was more successful, really, Shirish Kunder’s subsequent work (Tees Mehr Khan, horrid except for the “Sheila Ki Jiwani” number and Akshaye Khanna; Joker, just plain horrid), shows that he didn’t have the talent I gave him credit for. Apparently, it was just an odd alchemy of his strange strange script ideas, and Farah Khan’s genius with song sequences. And probably some budgeting issue that kept them less ambitious. And then post-Om Shanti Om, Farah’s production house had all the money and street-cred in the world to throw at her husband’s strange vanity projects, and it turns out that they were really not good. If the actual filmmakers proved incapable of recreating the artistic success (well, by my measure) of this film, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if it had done super well and a bunch of young imitators had sprung up!
So, Jaan-E-Mann opens with a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it goes on to reference the Indian FilmFare Awards ceremonies of the 1970s, Broadway Melody of 1936 (the best Broadway Melody, their quality declined over time. It goes ’36, then ’38, Born to Dance which should have been ’37, and then 1940, the worst. I should really re-watch those), Singin’ in the Rain, and a million others, some of which I got, and some I am sure I missed.
(The reference is a lot clearer if you know there is “Blue Danube” playing in the background in both)
(they digitally inserted Salman into a 1970s FilmFare ceremony for no real reason)
(It’s not as clear with still images, but the table and chairs rise up from the floor)
(It’s visible in still images, but if you watch the whole opening of “Gotta Dance” in Singin’, and the end bit of “Humko Maloom Hai” in Jaan-E-Mann, it is really clear)
And these aren’t sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, inside joke references. They are for a purpose (I believe, even if no one else does). Over the course of the first 20 minutes of the movie we are going through decreasingly surreal and movie-movie images so that the final moment when reality comes crashing down is all the more devastating. And when I say crashing, I mean literally crashing, as Salman’s character receives his divorce papers from Preity Zinta and destroys their marital apartment.
I should pause and actually address the plot for a second. It’s a pretty simple one. Preity Zinta is suing Salman for alimony that he can’t afford to pay. He decides to help her nerdy (or maybe geeky? I am never clear on these distinctions) best friend from college played by Akshay Kumar woo and marry her so Salman can get out of paying alimony. And Akshay doesn’t know Salman is her ex, he thinks he is just his new best friend who is trying to help him out. Also, Salman is a struggling actor and Akshay works for NASA. There, now I’ve spoiled the magical randomness of 2001 and 1970s FilmFare references by explaining how they actually relate to the characters.
Actually, all of the magically random visuals relate to the characters, and if you get that, the movie really really works. And if you don’t, it really really doesn’t. Akshay’s character is introduced by two songs in rapid succession. First, he flashes back to his first meeting with Preity in college. It’s presented from his perspective, and it is a total fantasy. She is sweet and beautiful and angelic. Her boyfriend (Salman, although Akshay doesn’t know that) is a lout. Akshay is sure they will end up together. It culminates in a rock concert they go to together when Akshay is so happy and secure in his in love that he literally flies around the room (the image is both cheesier and more realistic than it sounds). And then literally comes crashing down to the ground when he sees her with Salman.
This fantasy does two things. First, it establishes that Akshay, while sweet, is probably not the right man for this woman. He only sees what he wants to see and cannot handle her as a real person. Second, it throws into contrast the flashback fantasy song we already saw when Salman told his love story at the beginning of the film. In that, the version of Preity Salman sees, and the version we the audience see, is the same. More importantly, she is a participant in the fantasy. They dance together, they talk together, they make eye contact. The unreality of Akshay’s romance makes Salman’s more real.
Equally important with Akshay’s fantasy is the reality that it is intercut with as Salman remembers a different version of the events. In his version, Preity is different, wilder, more selfish, having fun. But as we see his version, we know he is realizing that Akshay’s memory of her “loutish boyfriend” is accurate. He was selfish and uncaring, he did ignore the damage their romance was leaving in its wake. And this all culminates in a beautiful moment when the present day reality and the past come face to face. As Akshay’s heart breaks in the past, as his fantasy ends and he comes to earth, present day Akshay, and present day Salman and Anupum Kehr (who is a Salman’s uncle and a dwarf for no reason. Don’t worry about it) to whom he is telling the tale enter into his vision and quietly witness his despair. It’s perhaps the clearest way I have ever seen shown onscreen of conveying how those painful moments of our past can feel like they happened to different people, but at the same time can feel like they are still happening in this moment as you tell of them.
The second song for Akshay’s introduction is when Salman and Anupum are trying to jolly him into believing in himself and his ability to win over Preity. To that end, they open a closet door and the 7 dwarves come out (don’t worry about it). And then they have a song in which Preity is played by both Anupum in a wig and a cardboard cutout of her character. So, the 7 dwarves may confuse the issue a little, but what this is really saying is that Akshay wants the Snow White and the 7 Dwarves version of Preity, the Princess, the cardboard cutout, the wig and the clothes. This comes up later in the film when Salman asks him point blank if he is in love with Preity herself or just her face, and he does not have a good answer (in context, they have just met dwarf Anupum’s non-dwarf doppleganger in New York and are wondering if there is an identical Preity somewhere in the world.) (I don’t know if the context helped much.)
The idea of image versus reality continues once they arrive in New York and rent the apartment across from Preity’s (remember, if it’s in an Indian movie, it is romantic, not stalking). Salman wants to watch her through the window, but Akshay has a better idea, he sets up a high quality telescope, links it to a projector, sets up a screen, and sits down to watch her. For the rest of the film, when they are in their apartment, there is an image of Preity’s place across the street on the screen. Akshay watches her face, her eyes, her smile. It really is captivating, just a long sustained close-up. Salman talks about what kinds of movies she is watching and how she is feeling and what she is thinking. One of these men knows her, and one only thinks that he does.
This is all stuff dealing with Preity’s image versus reality, but the same conflict is true of the other two leads as well. Akshay knows Preity will not fall in love with him as he is, and Salman knows that as well. It starts with a harmless suggestion of how to dress, how to approach her, what to say. But after their first interaction goes badly, Akshay begs Salman for another solution and they go full Cyrano. Akshay wears a wire and has Salman standing by to feed him every line. While Akshay is wearing a disguise on his soul, Salman is wearing several on his body. In order to stay in range and communicate, he buys a series of wacky costumes (actor, remember). Written out like that, it sounds kind of silly, but believe me, when you see it playing out in the song sequence below, it just breaks me, every time. For me, this and “Kwaja Mere Kwaja” from Jodha-Akbar are on the same level, amazing beautiful meditative pieces that take my soul to places it doesn’t even recognize. Again, just me.
This song sets the tone for all three characters. They feel uplifted, but what they are feeling does not match what they are seeing. That disconnect is what gives it it’s beauty. Akshay knows Preity is falling in love with him but feels that something is off and pushes Salman to keep helping him. Salman knows that he shouldn’t care for Preity anymore, that she ended their marriage heartlessly, but he can’t stop watching her. Preity is falling in love with Akshay but keeps feeling like she is with her ex-husband.
And then it all comes crashing in. Again. One by one, for the last half of the movie, the dominos fall. I’m not going to spoil the twist, but I am going to tell you it is beautifully done. Salman learns it first, and then has his heart broken. And the wall behind him shatters in a gorgeous use of CGI as his world ends.
In his heart break song, there are two shots that always get to me. First, when he is standing in the middle of time square, surrounded by people, and feeling completely empty inside (I know it is a cliche, but it really works here!). And second, when he goes back to the cafe where Anupum’s doppelganger works (don’t worry about it), and is taken in his arms and sobs. Such a beautiful scene of a stranger comforting a stranger.
When Akshay learns his devastating truth, he has what might be the best acting moment of his career as he furiously rips off the clothes Salman bought him, brushes out his hair, puts on his glasses, literally breaks himself down and builds himself up again before our eyes. Also, there’s a moment when he’s shirtless and I always get distracted by how much stubble he has on his chest. It must be so itchy! Just go back to the old way! That hair that makes people go “why is he taking a shower in a sweater vest?”
And then Preity has the subtlest moment of them all, Akshay tells her what he has discovered, he goes on about all the details of it and how it happened, and all she says is, “Please, keep talking about Salman. I never hear anything good about him. Please, keep talking.” It’s heartbreaking! On all sides! You have poor Akshay, once more reduced to a side-note in their epic romance, and you have Preity’s response that quietly fills in the blank of her past two years, apparently spent being forced to listen to her family denigrate the man she loves (and by implication, all the decisions she made for herself about her life), until she is desperate to hear just one kind word about him.
Just when the emotions get to be too much, we get to the final happy ending, which is so beautiful that I bawl every time. Again, just me. I mean literally beautiful, as in how it looks, not what happens. I mean, what happens is nice too. But the visuals are just perfect. The whole movie has been about fantasy giving way to reality. In a whole bunch of different ways. Fantasy love stories, Salman’s fantasy of his career, Preity’s fantasies which were apparently pretty comprehensively crushed by her awful relatives before we ever met her in the present day-but what the ending tells us is that the fantasy may be over, but sometimes the reality is even more beautiful.
Way back at the beginning, Salman’s fantasy version of their romance ended when he destroyed their apartment, in gorgeous slow-motion, pulling down the yellow curtains first so they fell in the background before the glass and wood were shattered. In her new apartment, they watched her through yellow curtains which hung on either side of the window, showing on their pervy screen display like the side curtains at an old movie palace, framing their view of her. At the very end, he is on a soundstage back in Bombay, filming a part in what appears to be a low-budget romance in which he is merely the hero’s best friend. In the background, yellow draperies cheaply define the set area. Filming ends, the crowd disperses, and he sees Preity. As their eyes meet and they smile, the yellow curtains behind them slowly start to fall, the cheap artifice of film, the comfort of fantasy, everything we use to keep ourselves safe from what is real, falls away. And you see that they are standing on a hillside on a cloudy but beautiful day, and there was nothing to hide from after all. I swear, I am tearing up just thinking about it and I don’t even really know why!
And then there is an epilogue with a cheap pun on Preity Zinta’s name. It is just such an odd movie, but it is also the one I watch whenever I feel bad or sad or glad, or worried about the world, or need a good cry, or need to stop crying, or just need something beautiful. The title means “Life of my Soul”, and that’s really what it is for me! Again, just me.